I saw Fela Kuti live. It was in 1989, toward the end of his career (his final studio album, Underground System, was released in 1992, and he died in 1997), at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. The show was astonishing. Obviously, it was over 20 years ago, so my memories are blurry and impressionistic at this point, but I remember a staggering number of musicians and dancers on the stage, all being conducted by this one shirtless, made-up, strutting man, who barked out lyrics and occasionally played long, honking saxophone solos. The music poured out and into the night sky, flowing and seemingly endless. Fela was known for never playing a “greatest hits” set; his songs tended to be nearly a half-hour long anyhow, but he never played anything he’d already recorded. When you saw him live, you were guaranteed to hear something you couldn’t get on an album, at least not yet. Once he laid something to tape, it was retired.
I wasn’t at all familiar with his music at the time I saw the show. I knew he had dozens of albums, but they weren’t available on CD, and I’d only heard one—1986’s Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (buy it from Amazon). I’d bought it after reading a review of one of his New York concerts in Rolling Stone, and even though I knew about the lengthy live jams, I was still somewhat astonished to see that the cassette only had one song per side. I played it over and over that summer and for a couple of years after, though eventually it got purged, along with most of my other cassettes. Now it’s been reissued, along with all of Fela’s other albums, on CD and MP3.
I’ve heard almost all of Fela’s discography at this point—not just the albums, each one monumental in its own way, albeit with some clear masterpieces (“Zombie,” “Gentleman,” “Roforofo Fight”) standing out from the pack—but also early singles and shorter tracks that crop up on all the compilations of Nigerian music that have been released in recent years. Most of his albums have a raw, rattletrap quality, the intricate polyrhythms and strutting horn charts recorded under relatively primitive conditions, the arrangements loose and choosing immediacy over sterile perfection. Calling Fela “the James Brown of Africa” is not only reductive, it’s actually kind of insulting to both men, glossing over each one’s individual strengths. That said, a lot of Fela’s studio albums from the 1970s all the way up to the early 1980s remind me of the work Brown did with the JBs on albums like Sex Machine and Hot Pants in 1969 and 1970, and the 1971 live album Love Power Peace. The aggression is the same, the determination to get the message out no matter what, to lecture the audience directly and let the driving funk carry it home.
This album, though, was made in 1986, and had a real producer—Wally Badarou, an Island Records-affiliated keyboardist and composer from Benin who played on Grace Jones‘s Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life albums when she recorded at Compass Point Studios in Jamaica, in addition to working with Talking Heads (on Speaking in Tongues and Naked), Robert Palmer and the Power Station, and many, many others. Badarou brings a polish to the music and the arrangements that vaults Fela’s music into a higher tax bracket, sonically speaking. The guitars and bass are rich and full; the drums, while sounding mechanistic at times, are slippery and hypnotic; the horns punch at the air. Fela himself sounds at ease, like he’s recording in a real studio instead of a tin-roofed shack with military police battering at the door, and yet his call-and-response exchanges with his female backup singers have a vibrancy that’s utterly infectious, especially during the passage midway through the title track where he commands them to sing back the phrases he plays on the saxophone.
The second track, “Look and Laugh,” is slower to get rolling, setting up a jazz-funk groove that almost has the lilting feel of Nigeria’s other primary musical export, juju, and letting it simmer. Hot trumpets blare atop the keyboards, and the rhythm gradually picks up speed and gathers force until Fela launches a biting tenor saxophone solo (it starts in Dexter Gordon territory, but heads Archie Shepp-ward before it’s over) at around the eight-minute mark, with the other horns commenting behind him. There’s a Herbie Hancock-esque keyboard solo after that, then more sax, and only then, about 13 minutes in, does the vocal section of the song begin. The track continues to simmer as Fela talks about how long it’s been since he wrote a new song, but eventually he begins to comment about how, as the track title indicates, he just watches the way people act and laughs. The track ends with Fela and the whole band laughing loud and long.
This reissue contains a bonus track, the 22-minute, politically engaged “Just Like That.” It’s as polished as the original album cuts, but nowhere nearly as relaxed, lyrically speaking (Fela talks about his memories of Nigeria’s civil war, and much more), and it’s a great addition to the disc. Almost the entire Fela catalog is worth hearing, but this album has special resonance for me, as it was my entry point.
Here’s some YouTube footage of Fela and band performing “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense”: